The thrilling story of a Canadian airman's fantastic adventurts with the French Maquis
F/O ALFRED J. HOUSTON As told to Geoffrey Hewelcke
ABOUT me was nothing but blackness, with the even blacker walls of tall Breton hedges meeting in a corner directly behind me. The sky above was overcast. Below—I patted the freshly plowed earth with my palms. That earth smelled as good as any newly plowed field in Ontario. I wiggled my toes inside my wet flying boots and waited.
Presently I heard someone whistling in the distance. It was a jiglike little tune. Someone else picked it up a little closer. Then both whistlers stopped.
Suddenly there were men around me. They seemed to have grown up out of the wet earth. Many men.
“We’re Patriots,” a voice said at my shoulder. “We fight for France. We’re the men of De Gaulle.” I shook hands with the owner of the voice. He was their captain. I’ll call him Tony, although that was not his right name. I may as well explain immediately that I’m not going to give the right names of any of the men or women who helped me, just in case the Germans still hold some of their relatives as prisoners. The Germans would take revenge on these prisoners ... I know that.
Tony fingered my RCAF battledress and shook his head.
“It won’t do,” he said. He snapped a few words in French and a bundle of clothing was passed up from somewhere behind. By touch I identified a pair of civilian trousers, a jacket and a pair of hobnailed boots, which later turned out to be a German Army issue. I changed right there in the dark.
Then somebody shoved a Sten submachine gun into my hands.
“Loaded?” I asked.
“Loaded,” was the reply ... I was now a member of Tony’s group of Patriots—of what the newspapers later called the Maquis, though I never heard any of the men call themselves by that name.
Later that ^night Tony and my new comrades brought me to a barn in which it was safe to light a candle. I saw them then. There were 30 of them—
hard-looking, weather-beaten men, most of them darkhaired. All of them were between 18 and 30 years old. All of them had gone “to (he fields” rather than serve in the German forced labor corps. All of them were armed—either with the Sten guns and grenades dropped by our planes—or with German rifles and pistols. A German rifle in the hands of a Patriot, I got to know, meant that a German soldier was rotting in some shallow grave in a Breton field.
It was in the barn that I told Tony and the others that was navigator of an RCAF Wellington that had been bombing a town with pamphlets warning civilians to stay off the highways when the invasion came; that we had run into a Junkers 88 on the way home and that our full gas tank was pierced by a shell from the German’s guns. I told him that there were five more of the crew somewhere in a 20-mile radius.
Tony took down the names and their descriptions. There were Flying Officer Harold Brennan, my pilot. He came from Lindsay, Ont. Myself, I come from Toronto. Before the war I was a salesman for the chemical products of the A. S. Boyle Co. There were Sgts. Andy Elder, rear gunner from Vancouver; Ernie Trottier, Cornwall, the bombardier; Roger Dickson, Vernon, B.C., the mid-upper gunner, and Johnny Kempson, wireless operator, Surbiton, Surrey —the lone Englishman jn our Canadian crew. The date was April 20, last spring.
I told Tony that I’d advised the boys to head southeast in the direction of the Spanish border when we bailed out, and he made a note of that too.
Within a few minutes a bicycle bell shrilled outside and Tony snuffed the candle while the door was opened. Then he lit it.
A little girl flung her pigtails back over her shoulders and stood stiff as a ramrod before him. She was one of the messengers used by the Patriots —and proud of her job.
Quickly she chattered to him in a language I could not follow. He nodded gravely. She spoke again. Of course she was speaking Breton—a language close to Welsh—quite beyond my comprehension.
“One of your friends has been found—severely injured.” Tony turned to me. “A dark-haired young fellow with a thin face . .
For a moment I considered.
“That must be Johnny Kempson,” I guessed. “What’s wrong with him?”
“He’s with a doctor 20 miles away,” Tony said. “He was found unconscious among the rocks in sume wild land. Would you like to see him?”
“Of course,” 1 said.
Tony spoke to someone behind me. Again the., candle went out when the barn door was opened.! Again it was lit.
“I’ve told one of the boys to steal a car,” Tony told me. “He’ll be back soon.”
He looked at me curiously—half enviously.
“It must be wonderful to fly in (hose - (hose avions,” he said. “To shoot (he Germansto bomb them . . . We who have to crawl in the fields ami ditches would give a leg todo (he same.”
"You have your job too,” 1 suggested.
Tony nodded. “We have,” he admitted. “We do it. Don't think that we’re not soldiers because we have no uniforms. We’ve killed a great many Germans— and we’ll kill more.”
I was surprised at the ferocity of his voice. But I am no longer. 1 have found out what the Germans did to the Patriots when they caught them.
Next instant, though, Tony asked if I’d had any trouble in parachuting down, and I told him that I’d landed in a field singing at the top of my lungs, so happy to be alive. He grinned when 1 explained that my parachute had failed to open at first. He smiled approvingly when I told him of fleeing across fields and through hedges, across a river and back again to
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confuse my scent because I heard hounds baying in the distance and thought they might be leading Germans on my trail. I told him also of my wanderings that day until I finally met the man who had led me to the field in which I met him.
In an incredibly short time a car rolled up outside the barn. Five of the Patriots and I climbed into it, holding our weapons between our knees. The Germans had forbidden people to be out of their homes after 9 p.m. But that seemed to make no difference at all to the Patriots.
Presently I was standing by Johnny’s side. His face was grey. A doctor and a lady were attending him.
“Johnny!” I cried.
He turned his head slightly but evidently could not see me. I dropped on my knees beside his cot. He put his arms about me.
“Get me home,” he mumbled.
The doctor, a grey-haired man with a
kindly face, shook his head. I drew him aside and he told me bad news. Johnny had been found by the Patriots among rocks. Maybe he had been dragged through them by his chute. Anyway he had a skull fracture besides internal injuries.
“Why can’t we turn him over to a German military hospital?” I asked. “That would give him a chance.”
The doctor smiled sadly. “Not now,” he said. “I’ve already given him aid, and the Germans would know that . . . they’d shoot me, for their regulations are that any parachutists must be left where they fall if they’re injured.” German patrols made frequent calls at this village so Tony decided that we must move Johnny Kempson and we took him in the car to a village about 15 miles off. Here we took him into a barn and bedded him in the straw. I stayed with him, as did two young Patriots.
They Dug a Grave
In the next five days the rest of the Wimpy’s crew were rounded up by
the Patriots, who brought them to ua,
one by one.
During this time the doctor visited Johnny every day, bringing with him a specialist from a nearby town; a specialist in head injuries.
Despite our care, despite the daily | visits from the two doctors, Johnny j died on the sixth morning. We knew ¡ he was going and the Patriots brought a | priest to him just before he died, though Johnny was a Protestant.
That night our Wimpy’s crew gathered in the village. They’d spent the day digging a grave for Johnny on a hill some 15 miles off. They’d worked for nine hours on that grave—the ground was so rocky.
Early on the following day we buried Johnny, with our crew forming a guard of honor, a priest from the nearby village conducting the service and a group of ragged Patriots, leaning on their rifles, or holding their machine guns, in the background.
Six weeks later I passed that place again and found that the children of the village had placed fresh flowers on this grave that was unknown to them.
After the burial Tony called us aside.
“We’re ready now,” he said.
“Ready for what?” I asked.
“You want to get to the Spanish frontier,” he said. “It is part of our duty as Patriots to help Allied airmen escape from the Germans . . . You are valuable fighting men . . . Much time and money has been spent on training you for your tasks . . . Very well, 15 men of our group will lead you southeast to the boundaries of the territory we know . . . We’ll be your guides and your guard . . . We’ll lead you and we’ll fight for you—and we ask only that you don’t risk your lives in unnecessary fighting . . . Leave that to us.”
We started off -southeast.
Travel with the Patriots was easy— at first. Later, as the Gestapo closed in on us, it became a nightmare, and we became hunted men, leaving behind us a trail of blood and suffering. In the beginning, though, the Patriots knew what roads were safe from patrols . . . They knew what farmers would feed them with no questions asked . . .
What woods were safe . . .
Besides they had their “service d’information” so well organized. Girls on bicycles —• farmers’ boys — would happen along every so often. At night somebody would be whistling a song in the dark . . . One of our men would whistle a few bars of another song ... ! There would be a whistled reply—and a shadowy figure would step out and mutter a few words of information.
But the Germans struck soon; on the second night, some 40 miles from the place where we had buried Johnny, I woke at the sound of voices near me.
I listened and was up on my feet. One of the speakers was a lad of about 17 who had taken spells with me in nursing Johnny Kempson. We had left him behind, but now he had caught up with our band and was telling a terrible tale. Somehow the Germans had heard about Johnny. They had heard about the doctor. They caught that doctor i . . . They tortured him . . . They broke both his wrists and twisted them . . . Then they killed him.
The boy’s voice was harsh and flat as ! he spoke. He told also that he himself had been captured but that he had managed to escape.
That was the first Frenchman who died for us; that gentle, kind-hearted doctor who knew that he was risking his life in looking after Johnny; yet came to see him every day. I never knew his name ... I
Tony called a meeting at once. It was obvious, he told us, that the Germans must know about us if they knew about Johnny. That meant the Gestapo would be alert ahead of us and on our trail behind us. We’d have to move with doubled caution.
We broke camp right away. The lad who had brought us the terrible news was sent on to another group of the Patriots.
Perhaps this is the place to say something about our guides. There was Tony, of course, tall, dark-tanned, profoundly efficient as a leader of men and the elected captain of the group. He had been “in the fields” ever since the surrender of France.
One of the other men was a barber, who plied his trade among us. Two were French sailors.
Others in our group were office workers, laborers and farm hands. They were all between 18 and 30 years old; physically fit and thus sought by the Germans for forced labor. All had a burning determination to fight the Germans as long as they had a breath to draw. They considered themselves to be soldiers of France.
Groups of the Patriots were usually not too numerous—not more than 15 or 20 men or women to a group. Y es, there were women who served with them, although mostly they were not “in the fields.” Each group had an elected captain. Each captain was responsible to a higher officer who had perhaps five groups under his control. Each one of these higher officers was responsible to a still higher authority who was in touch with General de Gaulle’s headquarters; received orders and transmitted requests for arms and dynamite.
There was a flexibility about the organization that was truly amazing. At the same time there was a control that worked perfectly.
The Curfew Shot
We continued on our way, living off the country as much as we could by catching fish in the rivers; by snaring rabbits in the woods. Occasionally we bought bread from lonely farmhouses.
Shortly we received another warning. The Gestapo was definitely on our trail. We split up into small groups of two and three. My two guides looked after me for four days before we rejoined the others at a small town a good distance south.
That Friday night a doctor came out from the town. He invited us Canadians to visit his house over the week end.
“You can have some home-cooked food,” he said with a smile. “Besides I think you’ll be wanting a bath and a sleep between sheets.”
We had some doubts. “Won’t it be risky for you?” we asked.
“I think I can manage affairs,” he smiled.
At noon on Saturday we left our camp in couples: one crew member, one Patriot guide.
After a week end of rest at the doctor’s home we left just before the German-imposed curfew at 9 p.m. and were making our way to the outskirts of the town when the Patriot scout some distance ahead of us raised his hand in warning. Instantly our guides dragged us into an alley entrance.
“German patrol coming,” they whispered.
A few houses from us a door opened and a little girl of five or six darted out to go home. She had apparently been visiting a friend and had overstayed the curfew. She was in the middle of the street when there was the flat smack of a rifle shot. The little girl spun about; fell flat. She kicked twice . . . She was still.
We airmen were stunned by the brutality of the act. Then we felt sick. Then we grabbed our Sten guns and made ready to charge around the alley entrance—but the Patriots held us back.
“Not good,” they said. “Not good. If you keel that patrol the Boches will keel 30 or 40 peoples in this town for ‘revanche.' "
Cautiously we peered around the corner. At the street intersection four steel-helmeted Germans were dimly to be seen. They were leaning against their bicycles. One of them held his rifle at the ready and was looking at the pitiful little body near us. But he didn’t approach it closer. Presently the Germans got on their bikes and rode off.
“Thees is France as she is today,” my guide whispered. “You see—there is not a window opened to see for why was the shooting.”
“It’s hell,” I said.
“Eet won’t last—I swear to you eet won’t last,” he whispered passionately.
Two days later we reached the borders of the territory familiar to Tony and his men. There we met another group of Patriots who were supposed to see us farther on our way. This group consisted of 13 men under a captain whom I’ll call Jean. He was a former Army officer who had gone “into the fields.”
We travelled with him for two days and then a messenger came, saying that the Germans had got wise to the fact that a lot of Allied airmen were getting out of France by way of Spain. They had thrown in whole Gestapo regiments to patrol the border country. It was hopeless to proceed.
So we turned northward again, heading once more for Brittany, although not on the route we had followed before.
A week later we sighted a German patrol of 20 men. They saw us too. Immediately they started after us across the fields. The Germans gained on us. Moreover they had rifles which had a longer range than the Sten guns with which most of us were armed. Their bullets were coming close. Soon
we’d have to stand and fight—and they were more numerous and had better weapons.
We crawled through a hedge that seemed to be a good obstacle and one of the Patriots—a young fellow of 28, well - built, sun - browned -— suddenly went up to Captain Jean and saluted.
“I demand permission to stay here and fight,” he said. “With my Sten— and perhaps another—I can hold them for half an hour while the rest of you get away.”
Captain Jean looked at him. Then he saluted.
“Permission granted,” he said.
The young fellow borrowed another Sten gun and settled himself in a ditch, his weapons pointing through the hedge to the field on the other side. He started firing almost immediately.
“Come along,” Captain Jean told us. “His sacrifice must not be in vain.”
We ran on while shots sounded behind us—and then ceased. Presently in the distance we heard a man screaming. It’s a horrible sound.
Later we heard that he had been wounded, captured—and promptly tortured to death.
A few days later we were crossing a field when bullets slapped the air about us. The flat reports followed seconds after. We all fell to the ground—but one of the Patriots remained still.
“He’s dead,” Captain Jean said. “Leo, Paul, Pierre, Jacques and André —you are appointed to take our charges to the wood by the stream that you know of. The others will stay here with me and we’ll fight the Germans off.”
We crawled to a ditch, wormed our way along it to an opening in a hedge. Behind us rifles cracked.
That night the captain and two men rejoined us. Three more had been left lying in the field—killed by German bullets. They thought that they had got at least two of the enemy, who had at last broken off the engagement.
We travelled north some 80 miles to an old mill. Here we were told that we’d have to wait some time until the Patriots found another way to take us to safety. In the meantime we were to live in a small room under the roof of the mill; to keep as quiet as mice because the Germans regularly used to eat in a room two stories down. We were warned not to smoke except when the coast was clear; to show no lights at night and to keep away from the single cobwebby window.
Our food was brought by a dear old lady, wife of the mill owner, and her daughter.
We stayed in this room for the dreariest six weeks I’ve ever spent. There were two beds in the room. There were five of us. That meant that one of us had to sleep on the floor each night. There were a table and five chairs, a slop pail—and a pack of cards. Nothing more.
We played bridge—endlessly we played bridge. The close quarters, the monotony of existence, our whispered speech, worked on our nerves until we hated each other.
Here we heard that the doctor who had entertained us over that lovely week end had been forced to go “into the fields” with his wife because the Germans had heard of the episode.
The Patriots visited us at intervals, bringing us cigarettes and pipe tobacco stolen from the Government warehouse in the district. French civilians at the time were rationed to 20 cigarettes a month . . . Each of us smoked more than that number each day.
We had time to think in this place and time to worry about our people— and the worry we were causing them. Naturally we had all been reported as
“missing in action.” They did not know that we were alive.
At times we seriously debated whether it was really worth while to keep on the effort to escape; whether or not we should surrender. But each time we thought of the men who had already given their lives—cheerfully, willingly—because they thought that in so doing they were saving trained fighting men. . . . We couldn’t quit. It was impossible.
June 6—D-Day—occurred in our fifth week in the mill attic. It was my night to sleep on the floor and I woke with the notion that an earthquake had shaken the building. I lay there on the boards and felt more tremors. I listened and heard distant guns. At once I woke my friends and we sat there in the dark, straining our ears.
We doped it out right. We figured that the noise was too heavy for ackack. It was naval gunfire. It was probably preliminary shelling before the landing operations were to start.
At 9 a.m. the miller’s nephew came bursting into our room. Two bottles of wine were in his hands. Tears were streaming down his face.
“Les Anglais have landed,” he cried. Behind him came the clatter of feet on the stairs. The miller and his wife and daughter were coming up. We opened the wine and drank silently to that glorious morning, while out of the window we could see Germans driving forced labor gangs at their job of planting timber stakes in the open fields to make glider landings impossible for our invasion Armies.
That same night we heard grim news again. The Germans had surrounded and killed a band of 18 Patriots who lived two miles away. Four of the dead men had brought us cigarettes. Seven had been shot in the fight. The other 11 had surrendered—and the Germans had tortured them to death. —They might have found out about us.
Next morning the miller came dashing up the stairs, screaming at the top of his lungs: “Allez — allez — les
We dashed down in a split second and he led us around the back of the building and pointed to a swamp 300 yards off. The Germans were coming up the road. We made for the swamp and lay among the bulrushes while a German staff car drove up to the front of the mill and an officer got out. Presently we heard two shots.
We didn’t know what had happened, although we feared that our hosts had been killed. That afternoon the daughter of the house came down to us with a stack of bread and butter and a jug of cider. She told us that her parents were safe. The shots had been fired by one of the officers when a farmer and his cart lumbered into the entrance of the mill as the German car was about to pull out. It was just the German way of saying, “Pull over—or else.” More searches were, however, expected.
The Sweetest Girl
We stayed in the swamp that night and all the next day until midnight, when we were called back to the mill, fed and introduced to our new guide.
She was a beautiful girl of about 19— a smartly dressed blonde—whom I’ll call Paulette. She was also one of the bravest and sweetest kids I’ve ever seen, and she was a Patriot who performed specially difficult missions.
From her we learned that the Allied beachhead in Normandy was a good 100 miles away and that it was too dangerous to approach it. Other arrangements had,however, been made, she assured us with a mischievous smile.
That first night she led us 10 miles. She stayed with us three days and
three nights and then handed us over to another group of Patriots with whom we stayed for a week.
After a week Paulette returned to guide us on our next stage.
We walked from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. the next morning, spending four hours in trying to enter a small town without being sighted by German patrols. It was the town in which Paulette lived— and further it was a town in which the Germans kept a garrison—right across the road from Paulette’s house.
Finally we managed to slip in unobserved and met her mother—a grand old lady who had lost four sons fighting for France. The last son had gone to England and joined the RAF. He was now reported “missing.” She had no sons left—but Paulette was doing a job for France . . . That’s the sort of family it was.
We’d been in the house for an hour when suddenly we heard whooping and shooting in the street. It was a German patrol, acting like a bunch of movie cowboys. They battered down the door of a house next but one to us and dragged out some people. We never learned what happened to them.
Eventually we got to bed . . . Brennan and I in one room and the other three in another. Next morning we watched with interest as Germans came out of the barracks across the road, packed their belongings on farmers’ carts and started off to the front. They seemed to us either young boys or old men. Some of the boys seemed to be crying.
Two nights more and Paulette told us the last lap was coming up. She led us toward the coast. On the way she groped under a bush and came up with
a magnetic mine detector, complete with earphones.
Somewhere she had learned to use it —and use it she did, for now we entered a German mine field several miles deep. Paulette would take a step forward, sweep the frying pan on a broom handle apparatus forward and from side to side in what looked like a complicated dance. If she found a mine she dropped a handkerchief on it. We would just see the white of it, like a flower in the dark. Then she’d move forward another cautious pace—and another handkerchief would go down. The last man in the file following her picked up the handkerchiefs and passed them forward up the line.
Seven miles we travelled that way, slow, nerve-racking, pace by pace, at times passing so close to German trenches that we could hear the men speak, and thought it impossible that they would miss seeing us. Dawn comes early in June and yet we could not hurry. Ours was a snail’s race against the sun—and discovery. Finally we got through the field and Paulette waved us on to the next step. Censorship will not permit me to say what that was—but I can tell you that as we stood with dawn approaching and watched Paulette moving back into the deadly mine field in that slow adagio dance with the broom handle and the mine detector, we felt dreadfully sorry that she couldn’t come with us. We prayed—very sincerely we prayed—that she got through the mine field safely . . . More than enough gallant French blood had already been shed to make our escape possible. Much more than enough . . .
Five days later we were in England.